by Barb who is busy rounding up her stuff to pack for Malice.
Now she’s back to tell us about her Agatha-nominated novel for children, UNCERTAIN GLORY. I love this book, and I also wanted to ask Lea some questions about the mysterious (for me) world of writing for children.
Here’s the blurb for UNCERTAIN GLORY.
Joe Wood has dreams. Big dreams. He wants to be a newspaperman, and though he’s only fourteen, he’s already borrowed money to start his own press. But it’s April, 1861, and a young nation is teetering on the brink of a civil war. As effects of war begin to spread over Joe’s hometown of Wiscasset, Maine, he must juggle his personal ambitions with some new responsibilities. He has to help Owen, his young assistant, deal with the challenges of being black in a white world torn apart by color. He needs to talk his best friend, Charlie, out of enlisting. He wants to help a young spiritualist, Nell, whose uncle claims she can speak to the dead. And when Owen disappears, it’s up to Joe to save him. Lea Wait skillfully draws on the lives of real people in Maine’s history to tell this story of three young adults touched by war and the tension it brings, forcing them into adulthood—before they may be ready.
Barb: Lea, all your historical fiction for young people takes place in or involves the town of Wiscasset, Maine. Why did you decide on this unifying sense of place? And how do you use it in your books?
Lea: I’ve always been fascinated by places. How different they are, and, most important, what stays the same (mountains, rivers, rocks) and what changes (the way people live – their homes, occupations, how they think of their environment). When I sit on the rocky shore of Maine I know I’m sitting on the same rocks people sat on hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years ago.
Who were they? What were they thinking
So I wanted to write a group of books that reflect one place, over time. I chose the town of Wiscasset, Maine, and so far have had five books published that take place in the 19th century there – in 1806, 1804-1807, 1819-1820, 1838 and, in UNCERTAIN GLORY, 1861. Many of the characters in these books actually lived in 19th century Wiscasset, and many events in the books took place there.
Barb: In UNCERTAIN GLORY your main character, Joe Wood, faces many conflicts and responsibilities that today would be considered adult. How do your young readers react to this? What do they learn from it?
Lea: Although Joe is a real person, in all of my books the main characters (ages 11-15) are faced with major changes in their lives, and must make decisions as to what they’ll do, where they’ll live, who they’ll live with, etc … decisions which many people today don’t make until their twenties. Because of that, my books are different from some contemporary stories for children which focus on school days and friends. My characters have friends, but they may also have business partners, and they definitely have major responsibilities, for themselves and their families.
Children reading my books are often amazed at what was expected by young people in the past, but are also fascinated by it. (So are adults!)
Barb: You have two mystery series for adults. How is writing for young people different from writing for adults?
Lea: It’s not as different as you might think. There are a few “rules” – say, about the ages of the main characters in books for young people. And in middle grade fiction, which I write, there’s no swearing or sex. Of course – in cozy mysteries you have rules, too – you can’t hurt an animal or a child, and most violence and sex take place off-stage. So each genre has its framework.
I don’t write down in my children’s books. I use whatever the (period-appropriate) words are, and my plots have included the middle passage from Africa, amputation, death of relatives and friends, and serious mental and physical disabilities. (Not all in one book!) In UNCERTAIN GLORY there are financial issues, a parent depressed after the death of a son, bullying, racial prejudice, and a twelve-year-old girl spiritualist who is being drugged by her uncle.
I don’t always deal with issues like that in my books for adults! I think authors (and parents) often under-estimate children. I’ve never heard of a child shocked by my books, but I know some parents and grandparents have been nervous about my subjects. I think sometimes we try to protect children too much. Think of what’s on the evening news!
Barb: A lot of people who don’t write for young people get confused by the categories. I understand picture books and chapter books, but help me through the thicket of juvenile, middle-grade, YA. Etc.
Lea: Okay! There are pictures books for every age group, up to adults. (What else is a coffee table book?) They start with board books, and gradually add words and pictures. Most picture books for the pre-school set today have under one thousand words. Chapter books also can be divided by reading level, but basically are books for early readers that look more grown up – fewer pictures than picture books, and the story divided into half a dozen or more chapters.
I write middle grade fiction, which are the classic “children’s books,” aimed at ages 8-14. They’re a little shorter than books for adults (30,000-45,000 words) and the main characters are usually aged 11-14. Young Adults, or YA books, have main characters aged 15-19, and more words. If the characters are older than nineteen, the books are now categorized as “New Adult.”.
In reality – a lot of YA and NA and even middle grade fiction is bought and read by adults, and children choose books by a combination of their reading abilities and their interests – just as they always have.
Barb: How is selling a book for young people to a publisher different than selling a series for adults? How is supporting the book post-publication different?
Lea: Wow. In lots of ways. First, most agents specialize; few agents place both books for adults and books for children. So you need to have an agent who knows the current marketplace in your genre. Second, in my experience books for children are edited much more closely than books for adults. Perhaps because of the time that takes, the time from selling a book until it’s published is longer than for adult books — for picture books (which are written by one person and illustrated by another) it can take five or six years until publication. For other books, two years is probably the average.
Different book reviewers look at books for children, and, just as there are mystery book stores, there are stores that specialize in children’s books. Most hard-cover books (and some soft covers) for children are purchased by town and school libraries; most parents can’t afford to buy their children stacks of new books, and depend on libraries. For that reason, having a children’s book re-published in a book club (with an inexpensive soft cover) is important for sales. Many authors make visits to classrooms to talk about their books, about being an author, and about how students can improve their research and writing skills. I’ve been doing more Skype visits in the past couple of years, too.
Lea: I just finished the third book in my Mainely Needlepoint series, THREAD AND GONE, which will be published next January. (The second in the series, THREADS OF EVIDENCE, will be out in August.) I’m working on the eighth in the Shadows series. And I’m hoping to get back to one of the two books for young people that seem to be perpetually “in progress”. Not bored!
Barb: Wow. Certainly not. Good luck at the Agathas, Lea! We’ll see you at Malice.
Readers, how about you? What do you enjoy in a children’s or young adult novel? Anyone else have ambitions to write one?